The single greatest moment in human history, that particular kernel of time in which all of our best nature triumphed over all of our worst, was when we first set foot on the moon. The idea that we started as basic tool users at some point in our past, looked up into the sky, pointed at that thing overhead and said, “We are going there,” is completely insane, and yet, we did that.
One of the primary themes of Christopher Nolan's highly-anticipated new film “Interstellar” is that we are in danger as a species when we lose our drive to explore. The film is set in a future where we have had to give our full attention to survival, when the idea of space travel is off the table completely. And while that seems extreme, considering the way the world felt when I was a kid living two hours from Cape Canaveral in Florida to the way it feels now, space travel has become something that is either about to be a novelty for the rich (maybe) or something that we do begrudgingly, and with as little financial involvement as possible. It's disturbing, frankly, and I would rather see the courage of every single person who puts on a uniform to fight for our country harnessed in service of exploration and making our species better than used to continue to fight over the diminishing resources of the rock we are currently anchored to.
So it's safe to say that I am the target audience here. I am someone who dreams of our species shaking loose these shackles and finding not just a new home, but a thousand new homes. I think we could be so much more than we are, and it is waiting out there, not here. “2001” was a formative experience to me, as close to a religious epiphany as anything I've ever experienced in a church. It crystallized something I'd felt in a way that was so daring, so trusting in the power of film to communicate. I love Stanley Kubrick unreservedly as an artist, and even the films of his I don't love are films that I can study and be fascinated by. But the way I feel about “2001” is different. It's a film that stands by itself. It is the result of Arthur C. Clarke and Kubrick in equal measure, and it is the space where those two brains collided that makes “2001” so special.
Here's a less popular position: I think “2010: The Year We Make Contact” is a pretty spiffy film in its own right. It is not “2001”. Then again, nothing is “2001.” It couldn't be reproduced, not even if Kubrick and Clarke had done it. I think Peter Hyams made a darn good film out of a really interesting book, and as a stand-alone piece of science-fiction, it has some big ideas and some breathtaking moments. I would set the air-braking scene aside anything anyone else did in the '80s as an individual set piece. Beautiful. It could not be done better now with all the computers in the world bent to the task. It felt like the way it would really feel to go through that, and as someone who is fascinated by space and space travel, that was about as thrilling as anything else I saw in a theater that year.
Do not take it as a backhanded compliment or a dismissal of any kind, then, when I say that in the end, Nolan's “Interstellar” is far more “2010” than it is “2001.”
If you're also a fan of Robert Zemeckis' “Contact” or the Carl Sagan book that film was based on, you'll find a lot to like here as well. It is not a long list of films that have similar ambitions, and it's fair to compare this to all of them. Like Zemeckis, Nolan is known as a bit of a wizard who has often dealt with criticisms that his work is cold or less emotionally engaging than it is technically dazzling. One of the things that I found most interesting about “Interstellar” is how very hard it's focused on getting the emotional side of things right, sometimes at the expense of the larger science-fiction story being told. Before Christopher Nolan signed to direct the film, there were drafts of the script created by Jonah Nolan for director Steven Spielberg, who is pretty much the king of getting the emotional side of these films right. My original theory was that the Spielberg drafts must have contained all the emotional beats that this film gets right, but now that I've seen the movie, I finally went back and read the Spielberg draft, and the thing that is the soul of the finished film absolutely isn't in that draft.
Consider me surprised. In the film, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is a former test pilot who was grounded when NASA went belly up. His engineering degree is useless in a world that needs farmers more than anything else. Each year, some new disease seems to target some new staple crop, and little by little, mankind's options are getting thin. Cooper is raising his kids to be farmers, and it seems like Tom (Timothee Chalamet) is taking to it naturally. Murph (Mackenzie Foy) is more like her father, though, headstrong and curious and convinced that there is a way to think our way out of this state of crisis. I think the film ladles it on a little bit thick with details about how schools no longer teach that the moon landing was real. I don't see us moving backwards to that degree. But the idea that we might reach a tipping point where we can't spare a thought to leaving the planet because we're so busy fighting it so we can stay alive? Yep. That seems all too credible to me.
Without giving away the various twists and turns of the film, which would be shameless considering how well Nolan's protected them so far, it is safe to say that Cooper is offered a choice thanks to a discovery that he makes with his daughter: he can leave the planet and be part of a mission that might save the Earth and all its people, or he can go back to his life as a farmer. It's no choice at all, and Cooper leaves, but it's a tough parting for Murph. Much of the film is defined by that decision, and I would imagine that any parent would understand just what it means both to leave a child for a reason that is in the child's best interest and to make a promise to that child about your return. We are gifted with a million opportunities to break our children's hearts as we raise them, and it is brutal each and every time we do it. The words “You promised” are like a knife to me. And when Cooper leaves, it's not made easy on him or on Murph. McConaughey is everything to this movie. If you love this movie, chance are you love it because of the work that McConaughey does, and if you hate it, then I would have to imagine you aren't buying what he's selling. I think he's reached that point in his career where he can't make a false move onscreen. He believes it, so we believe it. He gives himself over to it 100%, and that sincerity is amazing. It reads as confidence and it reads as peace and it gives McConaughey that extra bit of aura that makes him so interesting to watch right now. Nolan takes full advantage of it, especially in the film's home stretch.
The film does its very best to anchor everything in hard science, although there is definitely a reach towards the metaphysical towards the film's end. In particular, the film plays with relativity in a way that should feel familiar to fans of “Inception.” The notion of how much time will pass for the people on a planet they're exploring versus how much time will pass for someone on the ship they left versus how much time will pass for someone on Earth… it gets very heady, and Nolan uses it to set some very high stakes for the people in the film.
The space travel stuff is beautiful and realized though largely physical means. It works both inside the ships and outside, and there's a lot of “Interstellar,” particularly in 70MM IMAX, that is just jaw-dropping. I love photographs of space, of stars, of galaxies, of pretty much everything out there, and this movie feels like it captures some of the genuine sensations of travel, although everything's cranked up for the sake of a movie. There are several sequences here where they attempt to show us what it might look like to do something that no one has ever done, like move through a wormhole or pass the horizon of a black hole, and we're a long way from the hippy-dippy light show of “2001.” Again… I say that as someone who had a legitimate Road To Damascus moment sitting in the front row of the upper section of the Cinerama Dome during a 70MM revival of that movie. But that legendary Stargate sequence was experimental and almost like visual jazz, a filmmaker knowing that he isn't reproducing reality so much as attempting to induce a state of mind. It's hypnotic. It is meant to cleanse the palette before Kubrick lays out the ending, in which Bowman confronts what he was, what he is, and what he is meant to become. That's not the kind of filmmaking you should expect from “Interstellar.” This doesn't break down into visual poetry that invites interpretation, nor is it meant to. This film is meant to be read very literally.
That's not to say the last half-hour of the film will be easy for every audience. And it's not to say that “getting it” has anything to do with liking it. I think Nolan makes a misstep here in the story he's telling, and a sizable one, but he does it because of the emotional journey he's setting up, and as a result, it pays off for me. Until now, Nolan's never made me cry with one of his films, but in this movie, he managed to do it twice, and not just a little bit. There's a sequence about halfway into the movie that flattened me. It's just brutally sad and honest and simple. And, yeah, when the film finally starts to wrap up, there's a line delivered by a fairly big-name cameo that crushed me all over again. It feels like for Nolan, making that connect was more important here than worrying about a spinning top or making you wonder about the bodies in the display cases or, frankly, servicing the sequel needs of Warner Bros. Here, the punctuation mark feels like it's about human connection, about faith in each other more than faith in the invisible. It is a deeply optimistic film, which is why it paints the negative in such broad strokes in the film's first third.
Wes Bentley has been doing really solid work across the board lately, which is great to see. He had some wilderness years after “American Beauty” put him on the map, and he's developed into a very sharp, wicked performer. Doyle (Bentley) is one of the astronauts on the team with Cooper, as well as Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), whose father Professor Brand (Michael Caine) is the brain behind this overall project that enlists Cooper's aid. Hathaway's naturally flinty quality is well-used here, and she throws herself into the physical side of things with a genuinely impressive aplomb. Caine's role is one of shifting grays, and at this point, he and Nolan must have innate trust in one another. Caine's very good in his brief time onscreen. David Gyasi plays Romilly, the team's astrophysicist, and he does some marvelous subtle work in the movie, especially later on.
Back on Earth, we see Cooper's kids growing up without him, and Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain play Tom and Murph as adults. Chastain in particular burns bright in this film. She gets it. She knows exactly what drives the movie. The stuff about space and space travel and wormholes and fifth-dimension space and relativity… it's all in service of a very direct and emotional idea. Chastain's a key piece of that puzzle, and she does what she is asked to do very well. It's not a huge part, but it's essential.
It's exciting to hear just how out-of-his-comfort-zone Hans Zimmer is here, and it works to the movie's advantage. It feels like a score written from a very direct and emotional place, and it helps cement the yearning that underpins so much of what Nolan shows us in the film. There are some astonishing large scale set pieces here, but it's not really an action movie in a conventional sense. The thing that I like least about the movie is a major subplot in the film's second half, one in which the threat to our main characters is less about the nature of the universe and more about man's nature, and it's disappointing because it feels like things we've seen before. It is a digression that feels pointless. I'm much more interested in the ideas that we haven't seen explored before, or in suspense that is drawn from smart characters making smart choices and still having to deal with negative consequences. The way Hoyte Van Hoytema shoots the sets and the locations is thrilling, and there are images that are a reminder of just how much awe should be felt before calling something awesome. Nathan Crowley's production design never feels like he's making “movie” choices, but instead is pushing towards function and reality. The work by Paul Franklin and Scott Fisher and the rest of the amazing visual effects crew is seamless and invisible, and they deserve credit for grounding it as much as they do, even when asked to do the fantastic.
I was moved by “Interstellar,” and there are stretches where it is as good and as pure as anything Nolan's made. You can feel just how important all of it is to him in every frame of the thing. I don't love all of the film's dramatic choices, though. It's a film I look forward to revisiting, and considering just how much my own son loves space and space travel already, I'll definitely be taking him to see it. The best the film can hope for is that it will remind young viewers that there is something else besides this planet, and there is so much of this universe that we don't remotely understand, and if there's any hope for us, it is by looking up. Nolan's fervent belief in that message alone makes this something worth seeing, and if it can inspire a new generation of dreamers, then even better.
“Interstellar” is in theaters November 6, 2014, unless you want to see it on 70MM film, in which case you get it two days earlier. Which is awesome.